March 15, 2013

Somerset economic group backs east-west highway

By Rachel Ohm
Staff Writer

SKOWHEGAN — Somerset County's economic development group will support a coalition to promote an east-west highway in the northern part of the state.

The board of the Somerset Economic Development Corp. voted to support the coalition after hearing a presentation from contracting firm Cianbro Corp. about the specifics of the project and a proposed timeline on Thursday morning.

The development corporation executive director Jim Batey said he thinks the project would be good for the area.

"It will definitely generate jobs and tax revenue," he said. "I think there is a need for the highway; and while it will take a few years, I think it is likely to happen."

The Somerset County corporation joins the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Franklin Development Corp. in neighboring Franklin County, among others, in their support of the project.

Darryl Brown, project manager for Pittsfield-based Cianbro, said Maine needs something to transform its northern economy and the highway could help do that.

"Maine is at a crossroads. We need to think ahead or accept the status quo," said Brown, promoting the building of the four-lane highway that would extend 220 miles from Calais to Coburn Gore.

As the proposal stands right now, the highway would run through three towns and five unorganized territories in Somerset County, including Caratunk, the Forks and West Forks, said Brown.

Plans also include an all-purpose recreational trail for snowmobiling, hiking and mountain biking that would run along the highway, he said. The road would be privately owned and operated but would help to bring construction, maintenance and police jobs to Maine, he said.

It would operate as a toll road, with the cost to passenger cars reflecting rates approximately equal to that of the Maine turnpike, he said.

Brown said the company is looking to complete the project in the next 10 to 12 years. It first depends on getting approval from local property owners before beginning design and engineering.

The company is trying to avoid using small parcels of land that have homes on them, he said. They also intend to be environmentally conscious and create overpasses for wildlife to cross, he said.

Some members of the public and local government present at Thursday's meeting expressed concerns.

Peter Dosti, a West Forks resident, said he was concerned about the project's effect on the local Fire Department.

"It seems we would need to upgrade to handle the number of accidents. We have a small Fire Department and wouldn't be able to handle the traffic on a new road," he said.

The likelihood of accidents also would be aggravated by the fact that the area is one of the state's more densely populated with moose and other wildlife, he said.

Solon Selectwoman Sarah Davis said she would encourage municipal leaders in the areas around the site of the proposed highway to look into what the costs would be for taxpayers.

"We know there are some benefits, like more jobs and a potential for more business with Canada, but I think there are a lot of questions not being answered," she said.

Rachel Ohm -- 612-2368

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